King of the RoadApr 22, 2015 11:30AM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
A pair of overall-clad old-timers with wives in tow. A young couple in matching camo attire. Doting grandparents dining with their favorite 5-year-old. Local mechanics on lunch break. A freshly scrubbed and combed 40-something trucker, devouring content on his smartphone as ravenously as his dish. A pair of Southern female truckers, convening their convoy-of-two for a respite of hamburger steak and chit-chat.
“I know why 94 was closed back there,” one trucker proudly says, almost conspiratorially, to another in a deep Southern accent. Grey wisps overflow her Georgia Bulldogs ball cap. A pen and tire gauge sit abreast, clipped to the pocket of her blue t-shirt.
Waitress Crystal flits from table to table, cheerily taking orders and topping off coffee; never seeming rushed, but totally on top of everything. The aesthetic is carefully curated retro, with vintage pics of the Sapp brothers and other family hung alongside classic gas pump globes. This location, opened in 1971, was the first of a now 16-strong collection of Sapp Bros. Travel Centers stretching from Pennsylvania to Utah.
From our cozy booth, an interior window perfectly frames a huge blanket on the wall, one adorned with a black bear, turkey, and deer. The buck stares in through a single pane from the convenience store—which offers much more than its urban counterparts. In addition to the usual grab bag of snacks and sodas, the Travel Center at I-80 mile marker 440 stocks all the trappings of an auto parts store, plus sunglasses, hats, neck pillows, audio books, mattresses, Harley gear, naughty mudflap gals, maps galore, and, as anywhere in the region, abundant Husker paraphernalia. An “As Seen on TV” store beckons from across an adjoining Subway shop.
Need a quick haircut? How about a new tat? This place is a city unto itself and also boasts a chapel, TV lounge, service station, showers, game room, laundromat, and more.
Back at the Apple Barrel, my companion orders a perfectly cooked Whiskey Steak & Eggs with hashbrowns and toast (subbing for sold-out homemade banana bread), while I conquer the King of the Road Chicken Fried Steak Skillet with two scrambled eggs and a biscuit. Dashes of hot sauce, salt, and pepper elevate it to quintessential diner fare done just right.
The open road itself is as iconically American as eateries like this, representing generations of journeys, but also the promise of where we’ll go next. A vast atlas comes alive with movement, inspiring possibility and enabling independence; each interstate a throbbing vein, each back road a supportive capillary.
Sapp Bros., with its colossal, iconic coffeepot water tower is a prairie oasis for many wayfarers. Its cadence acts as the beating heart of Americana, nestled right here in the heartland.
Full of coffee and comfort, we exchange goodbyes with Crystal. Folks continue moving throughout the roadside retreat, some arriving on 18 wheels, some on merely four, but all finding proper fuel for their rigs and for themselves.